This book might be described positively as encyclopedic. What was your process for researching, taking notes, and writing, and how long did all of that take?
Dr. David L. Allen
I began researching and writing roughly 10 years ago. The more I read of the modern literature, the more I realized I needed to go back and read the primary sources on this subject, especially from the Reformation to the present. My chapter on the extent question, “The Extent of the Atonement: Limited or Universal?”, which was published in 2010 in Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Calvinism, became the template for most of the book.
I decided to cover the issue historically, biblically, theologically, logically, and practically. Two-thirds of the book is historical theology. I wanted to discover what the patristics said specifically about the subject. The same was true for key medieval, Reformation, post-Reformation and modern scholars. From this historical survey I was able to see how previous scholars dealt with the biblical and theological evidence concerning the question.
Instead of reading what others said Calvin said, I read Calvin. Instead of reading what others said the Council of Dort said about it, I read the minutes from the Council of Dort, along with the writings of those who attended the council when they spoke on the subject. Instead of reading what modern day authors said the Westminster Assembly said about the subject, I read the minutes of the Westminster Assembly and the writings of those who participated when they spoke specifically on the subject. I followed this procedure of research into the 21st century.
Thus, much of the book is an inductive study of the extent question. I attempt to let the historical players speak in their own voice on the subject. Reading, researching, and taking notes on all this material was time consuming to say the least. I added hundreds of EEBO to my digital library. I ended up with two lateral filing cases full of thousands of pages of copied and marked material.
I devote roughly 100 pages to a chapter by chapter critique of the latest scholarly defense of limited atonement: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, published by Crossway.
The final published volume is 848 pages in length and contains roughly 3000 footnotes.
You obviously care deeply about this topic, and you’ve written more on Calvinism elsewhere. What do you think is at stake with the extent of the atonement with regard to pastoral theology, evangelism, or personal devotion?
Ultimately, I believe any doctrine that does not comport with Scripture will be damaging to the church. I do not believe limited atonement comports with Scripture. Neither do many of my Reformed brethren, as a careful study of church history from the Reformation to the present demonstrates. Scripture seems to clearly assert that Christ died for the sins of all people.
Preaching and evangelism is the announcement of the gospel to all people. However, if Jesus did not die for the sins of some people, then how can the gospel be offered by God himself to all people? It cannot be done so consistently. Limited atonement undermines the well-meant offer of the gospel. It also calls into question God’s universal saving will and his benevolent love for all people. How can God be said to love anyone for whom he does not provide an atonement for their sins? How can God himself offer the gospel to those whom he knows have no atonement for their sins? He cannot. Pastorally speaking, limited atonement creates insuperable problems.
The question of for whose sins did Jesus die comes very close to the heart of the gospel in a way that debates over the other letters of the TULIP acrostic do not. While limited atonement is not a denial of the gospel, in my view, it is a distortion of the gospel.
As Thomas Lamb, a 17th century strict Calvinist Baptist according to Benjamin Brook, said: “Yet I deny not, but grant with him [John Goodwin], that the denial of Christ’s death for the sins of all, doth detract from God’s philanthropy; and deny him to be a lover of men, and doth in very deed destroy the very foundation and ground-work of Christian faith.” (Absolute Freedom from Sin by Christ’s Death for the World [London: H. H. 1656], 248.)
One of the purposes of your book is to document many Reformed theologians who held to unlimited atonement. After all your research, what is your impression of the split within the Reformed camp between those who hold to unlimited and limited atonement? I.e., historically, from the Reformation to today, can you (roughly) estimate what percentage of Reformed theologians have held to each?
Virtually all, if not all, of the first generation among the Reformed, including Calvin, held to unlimited atonement. At Dort, approximately one out of four delegates affirmed unlimited atonement. At Westminster, approximately one out of three affirmed unlimited atonement. The single largest debate at both Dort and Westminster occurred over the question of the extent of the atonement.
I estimate that at least one-fourth of the Puritans held to unlimited atonement. Though it is difficult to measure percentages among Particular Baptists in England, it is clear that several of them also held to unlimited atonement, yet remained Particular Baptists. Among Calvinistic Baptists in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, I would say approximately half affirmed an unlimited atonement. All of the New Divinity men in the late 18th and early to mid-19th century held to unlimited atonement.
I’m less certain how to measure the 20th century. Among modern-day Southern Baptist Calvinist theologians, there is a growing number who affirm unlimited atonement. The major reason I see for this is the reality of the exegetical problem of finding limited atonement in Scripture.
What is happening currently in Reformed research on this topic is the discovery of evidence that shows there were many among the Reformed who held to unlimited atonement well before the Amyraldian controversy.
As you note in your introduction, interaction with biblical passages is interspersed throughout your volume as they are used by theologians. Could you explain to us here the most important passages for those who advocate unlimited atonement on the one hand, and limited atonement on the other? (Briefly annotate if you wish!)
Advocates of unlimited atonement point to the following verses:
1 Corinthians 15:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:18-21
1 Timothy 2:4-6
1 Timothy 4:10
2 Peter 2:1
1 John 2:1-2
Advocates of limited atonement point to the following verses:
Notice not a single one of these verses asserts Christ died only for the sins of “his people” or “his sheep” or “his church.” To assert such is to commit the negative inference fallacy, a logical fallacy that assumes a negative from a bare positive statement. All Calvinists who assert these verses teach limited atonement are engaging in the negative inference fallacy. What is needed is a single verse that asserts Christ died only for the sins of a certain group of people. Such a verse is non-existent in Scripture.
I am considering writing a second volume that will address specifically the exegetical evidence of the key passages and demonstrate why unlimited atonement is the biblical view.
This volume follows another large one, your Hebrews commentary in the NAC series. What else should we look for you to publish over the next 10-15 years?
I am currently working on two books. One is “Exalting Christ in Job” which will be published by B&H in the Christ-Centered Preaching series edited by Akin, Merida, and Platt. I am also working on “The Doctrine of Salvation” which will be part of B&H Academic’s new series on Baptist Theology.
I have in mind to write more in the field of preaching. I plan to write a book on the subject of “Preaching and Prayer,” a book on “The Theology and Practice of Text-driven Preaching,” and perhaps a book on “Preaching and Biblical Authority,” that would expand my 2000 article in JETS on that subject. (David Allen, “A Tale of Two Roads: Homiletics and Biblical Authority,” JETS 43.3 : 489-515.)
I have a large collection of devotional material from throughout church history. I plan to write a book of 365 daily devotions which would be culled from the wealth of material throughout church history coupled with my own thoughts.
Finally, I plan to write a few text-driven preaching commentaries on some Old and New Testament books, like Ruth and Philemon for starters. These would not be traditional commentaries, but would demonstrate the semantic structure of the text and how that would inform sermon structure.
My volume 1-3 John: Fellowship in the Family, in Preaching the Word, ed. Kent Hughes, (Crossway, 2013), is a series of 20 text-driven sermons on 1 John followed by a sermon on 2nd John and one on 3rd John. I may try to write and publish more volumes like this on some Old and New Testament books, beginning with Hebrews. (Editor’s note: Dr. Allen also published a fine commentary on Hebrews that excels in syntax and theological analysis, and I enjoyed interacting with his unique perspective on the warning passages in my ThM thesis. You might also find his monograph on the Lucan authorship of Hebrews intriguing.)
Thank you, Todd, for this opportunity!